July afforded a sudden opportunity to observe an AFOP health & safety training on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Maryland. Our partners from Telamon, MD were going to be in Denton, training 50 farmworkers on heat stress and pesticide safety. Since I had never been to a training, AFOP Health & Safety’s Director Melanie Forti sent me, along with our NMSHSA intern, Karina. We packed up our rental car with some training materials, and left D.C. around noon. Despite some uncertainty about the address, we arrived at the appointed location in plenty of time. In fact, we were the first to arrive, which afforded us some time to get to know the farmworkers on our own.
At first, only one man was sitting outside at the picnic table – everyone else was inside their mobile home, resting. I used my creaky Spanish to ensure I was in the right place. “El entrenamiento es aquí?” I asked, stumbling a bit over the word “entrenamiento.” The farmworker smiled and nodded. More men trickled out of their homes and joined us as Karina and I introduced ourselves, then told us a little about themselves. Miguel – appointed Best-English-Speaker by the rest of the group – had been coming to Maryland for 16 years, he said, the longest of anyone. He and a few select others came for the full ten months to harvest watermelons and otherwise work in Maryland’s agricultural fields. Some of the other men came just for eight months. They were all from Mexico, they said, they were all H-2A, and yes, they all had families back home.
A total of 15 farmworkers would be at that day’s training. 35 others from a neighboring farm sent their regrets at the last minute; they had to stay in the watermelon fields and get in that afternoon’s crop before a big thunderstorm hit later that evening.
Dina, Telamon’s lead trainer, didn’t waste any time, setting up her materials and AFOP Health & Safety flipchart on the picnic table as the men arranged themselves on huge logs that functioned like benches in her outdoor classroom. As Dina started in with the pesticide safety training, I took pictures and observed. The farmworkers listened with rapt attention as Dina spoke warmly and comfortably with them. It was clear that she had done this training dozens of times before. Every time she stopped and checked for comprehension, everybody raised their hands. When one or two didn’t, Dina called them out individually to see what they’d missed – eliciting laughter from the group. My favorite part of Dina’s delivery was the way she made the words water and beer sound cute. “Bebe agüita,” she advised, “no cervezita!” Drink water, not beer. Again, the men laughed.
But of course, the subject matter was quite serious: how to prevent oneself or one’s coworkers from dying of pesticide exposure or heat stress. “What’s she saying now?” the owner asked. He was standing nearby and had guessed that I might be able to translate for him. (As the only white girl present, it was a safe bet.) I explained that Dina was going over the importance of the Safety Data Sheets, which should be given to employees in the event of an accidental pesticide exposure. Safety Data Sheets provide critical information about a pesticide’s ingredients and their possible side-effects, which help inform medical personnel on how the exposed farmworker should best be treated.
“Do any of the farmworkers apply pesticides on your farm?” I asked in a half-whisper to the owner. He shook his head no, saying that his son does all that, and takes special training from the state of Maryland before the farm is even permitted to buy any chemicals.
“Oh ok.. so then your son knows all of the precautions he needs to take to keep himself and his family safe?” I asked. The owner nodded but seemed a bit uncertain and a little worried, as Dina continued with her admonitions on how to avoid exposure to pesticides, like changing one’s clothes after work and washing them separately from the household laundry.
When Roosevelt came by with the laundry bags – a gift that’s usually shared with every farmworker at the end of a training, and which is intended to be used to keep farmworkers’ clothing separate – he offered one to the farm owner, who accepted it. I imagined the owner would be sharing it with his son, and telling him what he learned at the training. Also, I hoped he would be checking out all of the farm’s Safety Data Sheets and making sure they were in an accessible location for all his workers.
When Dina wrapped things up, we said goodbye to the farmworkers. Next, the team from Telamon led us to another nearby farm where watermelons sat piled up in sheds, ready for market. The farmworkers were all busy working, unfortunately, so we didn’t stay long. But I made sure to take a good look at those watermelons, imagining the men all out in the fields who’d heaved each one into the bed of that truck, and who were heaving even more into other trucks at that moment – all for the sake of their families in Mexico. Families they’d get to see for two, max. four, months out of the year.
Watermelon hasn’t tasted the same to me since.